Recommended: Diana Laufenberg’s column “Learning, Visualized” — ideas for teachers helping students to interpret visual data and to create their own infographics. She also recommends this TED talk with David McCandless, “The Beauty of Data Visualization”:

Both Laufenberg and McCandless point out that finding information is no longer a challenge for today’s students. The challenge is to wade through a sea of information, evaluate its usefulness, and then distill it into a format that’s meaningful. Infographics do this well, but they are actually quite difficult to “read,” much less to make. Design literacy is an important skill for students entering almost any field.

Some examples relevant to social media and the Arab Spring:

Students should ask what “data story” each graphic is telling, and evaluate them critically. For example, in the comments section to the MENA post, a reader asks the designer why he analyzed the “#egypt” hashtag but not the “#jan25″ hashtag. It’s relevant, because non-Egyptians were more likely to use #egypt in their Tweets, while Egyptians themselves were more likely to use #jan25. The two datasets would reveal different patterns.

And in the graph from Mashable, the hashtag “#sidibouzid” doesn’t make the cut for most-used keywords, but “RT” does. “RT” simply means “re-tweet,” and is used every time one Twitter user copies a Tweet from another user. “Sidi Bouzid” was the village in Tunisia where the Arab Spring protests began; when this somewhat unusual term started trending on Twitter last December, it was the first sign that something new and significant was happening in the Arab world. For obvious reasons, “RT” would be a more popular term than “sidibouzid,” but in terms of telling a data story, it’s much less compelling.

Of all the above examples, the final Wikipedia video might be the most interesting for students trying to grasp the relative importance of these events, and perhaps for understanding history generally. For example:

  • The Egyptian revolution only becomes big news after the Tunisian revolution, but when it does, it draws much more attention than Tunisia did. Why was Egypt considered bigger news than Tunisia, even though Tunisia came first?
  • Once the Egyptian revolution looks like it will be successful (but before it actually is), it leads to the creation of a new page, “2011 Arab world protests.” We’re no longer talking about events in one or two countries; it’s now a trend. Why? What is it about Egypt that made people see things in this new light?
  • Somewhere between the two revolutions, a page was created for “2010-2011 Algerian protests,” suggesting there were already protests in Algeria before the Tunisian revolution, but once Tunisia was successful, Algeria was rhetorically folded into this larger pattern. How might events in Algeria have played out differently, if things had remained status quo in Tunisia and Egypt?

Most importantly, we see that even though Tunisia and Egypt are garnering most of the world’s attention, activity in other countries is still ongoing. Sometimes things do slow down — for example, in the Al-Jazeera profile of Yemen’s uprising (see earlier post), opposition leader Tawakkol Karman mentions that Yemeni protesters reduced their activity during the Egyptian revolution because they didn’t want to put activists at risk while the world’s attention was focused elsewhere. But that does not mean the uprising came to a halt.

This is a story that can’t easily be told in print, in a linear (textbook) fashion. In high school most of us learned about the ancient Egyptians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. But the fact that one civilization eclipsed another in “the history of the world” narrative doesn’t mean that people weren’t still going about their business in the other regions. For history buffs (like social studies teachers :-)) this can seem so intuitive it barely merits an explanation, but for students it can contribute to the feeling that history is, in fact, just one damn thing after another, and that there is no rhyme or reason why we study one civilization in one time period and another one at a different time period. It also leads to political controversies over which histories, and thus which people, are worthy of attention.

The Wikipedia video is a powerful example of how this process happens. Students can watch it from different perspectives: through the eyes of an Algerian or Bahraini activist, for example, or from the perspective of an American journalist. In each case, where does their attention go? Most high schoolers are familiar with fake Facebook pages for celebrities or historical figures. If someone were to create a fake Twitter or Wikipedia graph for historical events — say, the year 1492, or 1945 — what might it look like?